Reviewed by Radhika Jones
The stories that make up Celestial Harmonies, Péter Esterházy's exhilarating family saga, have doubtless been passed down through countless generations, but surely they have never been told in such an adrenaline-fueled rush, tumbled together into a vigorous narrative that is part history, part novel, and part memoir. Until the mid-twentieth century the Esterházys were, as the author puts it in an interview, Hungary's version of a combination of Rothschilds, Kennedys, and Rockefellers; their name, he says, was synonymous with "aristocrat." (Their fortunes now have fallen, he adds wryly, putting the number of palaces he owns at zero.) The book is divided into two parts, the first comprising an anecdotal, unchronological sweep of centuries of family history and legend, the second focusing on the author's father's fate as Hungary succumbed to communism. In lesser hands this tapestry of drama and character might not coalesce, but Esterházy maintains firm authority over both tale and turn of phrase. In the first half, he refers to all his male forebears as "father," so that even as he chronicles generations' worth of dramatic episodes-duels, affairs, executions, charges into battle-their protagonists unite rhetorically into one mythical father figure, weak and strong, proud and humble, amiable and repugnant all at once. It is a brilliant idea, lending itself to striking contrasts among these various ancestors and encouraging a play with repetition in which Esterházy revels. He tells the story of how his parents met, for example, over and over again, no two circumstances the same; the result is a multiplying creation myth, and one soon begins to feel that the Esterházys are a kind of super-family, encompassing all possible scenarios of character, setting, and plot. They are at once historically unique and, in their day-to-day doings, strangely and gloriously familiar.
At over eight hundred pages, Celestial Harmonies may seem daunting. A less ambitious writer would probably have chosen to make four books of this material, or forty. But its heft is part of its appeal-it signifies the accumulative pileup of family lore, the layering of collective and individual personality over generations, the cyclical relations of fathers and sons, and even an inventory of literary inheritance. (Esterházy borrows bits of prose from authors including Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Witold Gombrowicz, and Vladimir Nabokov, among many others acknowledged.) It is by now a common thing in contemporary literature to come across fictional characters whose fates are magically tied to those of their nations. With the Esterházys that link is quite real, and Péter Esterházy has found a way to show it, in a work whose form and content display both the grandeur of an epic and the quiet insights of a multitude of parables well told.
Radhika Jones is a doctoral candidate in the English and Comparative Literature department at Columbia University.
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